Schumann’s “Rhenish”

Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21
Unsuk Chin: Violin Concerto
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 87, “Rhenish”

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 

Work composed: 1799–1800
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: September 29, 2014; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation:2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
Estimated duration:25 minutes

Ludwig van Beethoven’s First Symphony is a musical snapshot of the composer at age 29: a self-confident young man, comfortable working within the established musical and societal parameters of his day. Beethoven was not yet the iconoclastic deaf genius, possessed of a fiery temper and an irascible personality.

In 1800, as Beethoven worked on his First Symphony, he was simultaneously still making his way in the high-pressure world of musical Vienna. At this time, Beethoven’s reputation rested on his skill as an excellent pianist who played for the most select aristocratic audiences. Beethoven’s pianistic virtuosity also brought him many pupils, and his connections among the aristocracy and other important leaders in Vienna assured him entry into the most desirable strata of society. However, Beethoven was not yet widely known as a composer, even though he had been publishing his music since 1795.

In the 1790s, Beethoven briefly studied composition with Haydn. He later claimed to have learned nothing from the older man, however, and their teacher-pupil relationship was strained and uncomfortable. Beethoven’s music from this period shows Haydn’s influence, but this likely came from Beethoven’s study of Haydn’s music, rather than from anything directly taught him by the older composer.

The audience at the premiere of Beethoven’s Opus 21, which Beethoven conducted at Vienna’s Hofburg Theater onApril 2, 1800, would have heard a typical symphony of the Classical period: four movements scored for a then-standard orchestra of strings, timpani, trumpets, and pairs of woodwinds. The forms of each movement also emulate those of a Mozart or Haydn symphony: a fast first movement in traditional form; a slower and freer second; a so-called “minuet” (although even in this early symphony we can hear the beginnings of a true Beethovenian scherzo lurking beneath) and an exuberant, up-tempo finale. However, Beethoven abandons convention at the outset by opening the first movement with a chord that resolves to the “wrong” key, F major (instead of the expected C major).

Beethoven was roundly criticized for this shocking introduction, but responded in what became typical Beethovenian fashion by using the same opening in an even more deliberate way in his very next work, the overture to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. Aside from the unconventional opening, however, critical reception was generally favorable, and the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung praised the symphony’s “considerable art, novelty and ... wealth of ideas.”


Unsuk Chin
b. 1961

Violin Concerto

Work composed: 2001
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, antique cymbals, bass drum, claves, cymbals, glockenspiel, guiro, Javanese gong in D, lithophone, 2 marimbas, metal blocks, 2 snare drums, steel drum, thunder sheet, tambourine, triangle, tubular bells, 2 vibraphones, xylophone, zanza, 2 harps, harpsichord, and strings
Estimated duration: 27 minutes

“The most important thing for me in my music is that there should be a big palette of expressive possibilities. If it’s only lyrical, or only aggressive, then, for me, it is flat and one-sided. So, within a piece I try to communicate diverse, differing states of feeling and modes of expression.” – Unsuk Chin

Born in post-war Seoul, South Korea, Unsuk Chin’s first experience of music came from the hymns she heard in her minister father’s Presbyterian church. Chin’s family could not afford private lessons, but Chin displayed a formidable talent for and determination to learn on her own, and picked up enough piano to accompany her father’s congregation by age nine. “For me, it was like an exercise in harmony,” she recalled in a 2004 interview. “I was only eight or nine years old, very young, and it was quite stressful, but it was also very good practice.” In her early teens, Chin’s school music teacher, herself a composer, encouraged Chin to become a composer as well. “I learned everything by myself,” said Chin. “I listened to music every day, Western classical music; I played piano; I studied a lot of scores. It wasn’t normal [in Korea at that time] to buy recordings or scores: they were all rarities and very expensive. I borrowed scores from other people, too, and copied them out – the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony, in its entirety.”

Today, Chin is regarded as one of the leading modernist composers of our time. Her music explores a rich color palette of timbres and often requires – especially in works featuring solo instruments – an astounding degree of virtuosity. In 1985, Chin received a German music scholarship and left Korea to study with György Ligeti in Hamburg. Three years later, Chin moved to Berlin, where she has lived and worked ever since.

Chin first achieved international recognition with Akrostichon-Wortspiel (Acrostic Wordplay, 1993); throughout the 1990s, she received a number of commissions from European new music groups, including the Paris-based Ensemble InterContemporain, co-founded by Pierre Boulez, and IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique). In 2001, Chin wrote her Violin Concerto while serving as composer-in-residence with the German Symphony Orchestra in Berlin. Kent Nagano led the orchestra and soloist Viviane Hagner in the premiere, on January 20, 2002; two years later, the Violin Concerto earned Chin the Grawemeyer Award. She has received a number of other prestigious honors in the years since, including the 2017 Sibelius Prize.

The violin’s four open strings serve as the foundation for increasingly complex melodic and harmonic explorations. The soloist begins by sounding the violin’s harmonics in a soft, musing manner. The numerous percussion instruments offer a delicate partnership, as in a pas de deux. As the first movement progresses, Chin ramps up the solo part, and layers more timbres from the orchestra. The second movement, a quasi-chamber ensemble for an ethereally high solo violin and percussion, features delicate solo flutters and arabesques. The brasses’ abrupt interruptions make for shocking contrasts of volume and mood. A nervous energy permeates the three-and-a-half-minute scherzo, which highlights staccato percussion and pizzicato strings, including the harpsichord, a plucked string instrument not often included in a 21st-century work. In the closing movement, the solo violin’s lower range sounds for the first time, amidst freewheeling cascades of runs and playful leaps. Gradually the dense textures and sounds fade into a return of the opening harmonics and elemental four notes of the violin’s individual strings.


Robert Schumann

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 87, “Rhenish”

Work composed: 1850
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: November 17, 2003; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 30 minutes

Robert Schumann composed his final symphony in five weeks during the autumn of 1850. Two months later, when the “Rhenish” premiered on February 6, 1851, Schumann was on the podium in his new position as municipal music director for the city of Düsseldorf. The “Rhenish” premiere marks the only time Schumann conducted the first performance of one of his symphonies.

In his previous orchestral works, Schumann was criticized for his clumsy handling of the orchestra. Specifically, some critics thought Schumann, a pianist first and foremost, did not understand orchestral writing, and did not present the orchestra’s full range of timbres to best advantage. The “Rhenish” – the title, not Schumann’s, is an homage to the Rhine River – effectively silences this claim. In each of its five movements, Schumann proved his mastery of orchestral writing, not only to dubious critics, but also to himself. The heroic sweep of the opening Lebhaft (Lively) exudes an unshakable self-confidence – particularly in its ebullient horn solos – that is neither arrogant nor bombastic. Schumann the symphonist has arrived.

The Scherzo’s primary melody may suggest the gracious sweep of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony (as the opening Lebhaft evokes Beethoven’s “Eroica”), but Schumann’s music moves and develops in its own manner quite different from Beethoven’s rhythm-based motifs. The Scherzo also portrays the flowing waters of the Rhine itself, on a magnificently sunny day.

Wilhelm Joseph von Wasilewski, concertmaster of the Düsseldorf Musikverein during Schumann’s tenure as its conductor, wrote in his 1858 biography that Schumann was particularly inspired by a ceremony he had witnessed at the cathedral in Cologne to install the new Archbishop, in November 1850. Feierlich (Solemnly) recalls Schumann’s memory of the event in its brass chorale, the slow, stately unfolding of melody and countermelody, and its somber E-flat minor tonality.

The concluding Lebhaft juxtaposes lighthearted interludes with forceful, majestic statements. The “Cardinal’s theme” from Feierlich reappears towards the end, and the “Rhenish” closes with a celebratory brass fanfare.


© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media.